CHATHAM – The shark spotting season is off and running, with researchers putting eyeballs on three great white sharks last Thursday. Of the six research voyages as of Monday, sharks have been seen on five of the days.
Also, seven previously tagged white sharks have been detected on acoustic receivers in Chatham and Orleans waters.
Shark scientists say this is typical of the previous three years they've conducted a population study of the great white sharks drawn to Cape waters by the growing number of gray seals. Funded by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and conducted by Dr. Greg Skomal and John Chisholm of the state division of marine fisheries, the five-year study aims to develop the data to provide reliable estimates of the region's great white shark population.
Despite reports in the regional media, there's no reason to expect the number of sharks this summer will be any more than in previous years, Skomal said in a statement issued last week.
“Recent reports by several media outlets that Cape Cod will experience a 'boom' in white sharks this summer are unfounded. Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) biologists have no data to support this prediction,” the statement read.
The presence of white sharks off the Cape's eastern shore – concentrated in the area off Monomoy Island known as Shark Cove (it's hard by the locations that seals tend to congregate in the highest numbers) but spread throughout the Outer Cape waters – has been the subject of intense media attention since the predators started showing up here in increasing numbers since 2009. Stories have focused on Skomal and his work, highlighting the increasing number of sharks identified by the scientists since the population study began in 2014.
In his statement, however, Skomal said that when the number of survey trips are compared to the number of sharks identified each year – 80 in 2014, 141 in 2015, and 147 in 2016 – the rate has been “relatively constant.” The number of sharks identified per trip has inched up only slightly, from 3.2 in 2014 (25 trips) to 3.4 in 2015 (41 trips) to 3.7 in 2016 ((40 trips).
“Therefore, we have no reason to believe that the population will increase dramatically in 2017," he concluded.
While Skomal's team uses a spotter pilot to locate sharks from the air, sightings of sharks from shore are relatively rare. Beach officials, however, are prepared to handle sightings, said Park and Recreation Director Dan Tobin. At Lighthouse Beach, an experienced staff is on duty from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and they'll close the beach to swimming if they receive reliable information about a shark – or a seal – in the area. That doesn't happen very often, however; last year the beach was only closed once due to a sighting, Tobin said.
“They still have to be diligent,” he noted.
A large shark warning sign greets beachgoers at the stairs leading to Lighthouse Beach, and brochures with shark safety tips are distributed throughout Chatham and other Outer Cape towns. Purple flags with a white silhouette of a great white shark are flown when there is a sighting or “a more imminent risk” than usual, said Tobin.
“They're doing more PR than actual lifeguarding,” he said of the staff at Lighthouse Beach. “They're educating people to be shark safe.” Officials note that while a man was bitten by a shark while swimming off Truro in 2012, shark attacks on people are extremely rare, especially in the northeast.
Officials in Chatham, Orleans and other Cape towns are kept up to date on sightings when Skomal and his team are on the water through a shark notification network, so if a shark is sighted off Orleans, Chatham officials know about it. And there's always the Conservancy's Sharktivity smartphone app, which provides instant notifications of sightings by Skomal as well as other confirmed sightings.
Last week's survey trips resulted in a sighting Monday, June 26, of Omar, an 11-foot male identified in 2015 and tagged in 2016, and three sightings on Thursday, June 29: eight- and 10-foot sharks off Nauset and a 12-footer off Monomoy. Data from receivers also showed that at least two more previously tagged sharks were back: mature males Padre and James, who at 15 feet is the largest white shark tagged by Skomal and his crew to date.